Accessibility links

Breaking News

Terror and Islamic Struggle in Indonesia

A tug of war is taking place between moderate and conservative Islam in Indonesia -- a secular, democratic nation with the world's largest Muslim population. It is also a nation that in recent years has both spawned militant Islamic terrorists and suffered from attacks by them -- including two deadly suicide bombings in Bali since 2002. Now the struggle for influence -- between advocates of the long tradition of religious tolerance and diversity and those who want a more conservative, perhaps militant, Islam -- could have implications for Indonesia's war on terrorism.

Jakarta is a sprawling modern city of around 12 million people -- dotted with skyscrapers, hotels, bustling malls, restaurants, discos and all the trappings of a major international center. And like the rest of the country, most of the people here in the capital are moderate Muslims.

The Rise of Extremism

Despite this, Indonesia has suffered several major terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists since 2002. Suicide bombers carried out at least three major attacks against Western and tourist targets, killing hundreds of people. The Indonesian government has vigorously prosecuted scores of suspects in its fight against extremism.

But lately, a small, very vocal group of hard-line Muslim extremists has been gaining influence. A growing number of towns and cities -- including parts of Jakarta -- are passing laws based on Islamic religious codes, called Sharia.

Critics say these laws, which require such things as religious cloaking of women and the banning of alcohol and gambling, threaten the nation's hard-won democracy and secularism, and violate the constitution.

One such critic is Hazyim Muzadi, head of the country's largest Islamic organization -- the Nahdlatul Ulama - - known for its moderate views. He says creeping Islamic conservatism threatens the unity of the nation.

"We have a plurality of religion, plurality of civilization, plurality of ethnicity. Therefore, Indonesia must be united, not parted by the religion. And we from Nahdlatul Ulama, as the largest Muslim organization, if we make the constitution in text of religion, Indonesia will be broken," says Muzadi.

The Sharia Law Debate

On the other side of the debate is Fauzan Al Anzori -- spokesman for the militant Islamic organization, the Indonesian Mujahedin Council, or M.M.I. His group wants to abandon secularism in favor of an Islamic nation based on Sharia.

"We believe only with Islamic law we can [solve the problems] in Indonesia. Only with Islamic law," says Al Anzori.

As part of this agenda, the M.M.I. is pushing for passage of a controversial anti-pornography bill that many Indonesians fear will hurt women's and civil rights, and create a society ripe for militants.

Parliament is now debating the bill that proposes to regulate what women should wear, bans public displays of affection and censors art and cultural activities deemed immoral.

There is serious concern here. In a recent survey, 70 percent of Indonesians opposed the creation of an Islamic government and legal system.

In towns that have adopted local religious laws, there have already been cases of conflict with the civil legal code. Here in the Jakarta suburb of Tangerang, under new Sharia measures adopted last November, women have been banned from the streets after dark.

One woman, in particular, has come to symbolize the fight against Islamic laws. Lilis Lindawati is a married mother of two. She was arrested and charged with prostitution in February while waiting at a busy intersection in Tangerang for a ride home after trying pick up her paycheck from a local restaurant. It was eight o'clock in the evening when she was rounded up with two dozen other women in the area.

Lilis says a police officer arrested her and bundled her into a car. She says she was shocked but got no answer when she asked why she was in custody.

At the police station, Lilis's protests of innocence were met with charges that she had to be a prostitute because she had lipstick and powder in her purse. After a night in police custody without being able to call her family, a judge found Lilis guilty and sentenced her to three days in jail or a 25-dollar fine.

Lilis' husband, Kustoyo, is angry about what has happened. He says he does not agree with the repressive laws that hurt women, especially women who must be at work during evening hours. Lilis is now suing the mayor of Tangerang for 53-thousand dollars for wrongful arrest and defamation of character. Lilis says she is still traumatized by her arrest and seldom goes out, but she will fight. Lilis says the pain she has suffered by being jailed without committing a crime has made her brave and determined to fight for her rights.

The emerging struggle between fundamentalist Islamists in Jakarta and those who call on the nation to preserve Indonesia's traditions of pluralism and tolerance is only just beginning.

Many here fear the battle may go on for a long time, as Indonesia struggles to balance religion, modernity and democracy.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.